Crisis In Georgia

In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi today, police officers clashed violently with anti-government protesters. Opposition leader Anna Dolidze

This past Friday marked the fourth anniversary of the fraudulent Georgian elections of November 2, 2003, which triggered the renowned Rose Revolution. Instead of festivities, the formerly popular Georgian government is compelled to face a day of mass public protest. Only this time demonstrators are speaking out against President Mikheil Saakashvili, the man similar protests brought to power four years ago. The United Georgian Opposition held mass demonstrations in Tbilisi on September 29. During daily trips to regions to gather support for the demonstration, United Opposition leaders were received by hordes of sympathizers at local protest rallies. The opposition is demanding early parliamentary elections and reform of the election management body and voting system.

After weeks of demonstrating in regions, about 100,000 people have gathered in Tbilisi's main district. As of yet, no one from the political leadership has directly addressed the public or exhibited any desire to open up dialogue with protestors. If Saakashvili's government continues to ignore obstinately the causes of public discontent, the November 2 rally might turn into a mass movement with the radical agenda of toppling the government. Georgia's leadership would then have to come up with strategies to contain public resentment, ranging from police action to diverting public attention to security threats from abroad-or even provoking international incidents. Such developments would fatally undermine the Georgian government's efforts to portray itself as a beacon of progress toward Western-style democracy in the former Soviet bloc. This would also harm the interests of the United States, which has established itself as Georgia's biggest ally on the world stage. 

Sine qua non to avoiding such a disaster is carefully analyzing past mistakes and searching for possible solutions to the crisis. Matching strong internal and external pressure might be the recipe for a peaceful solution.

Statements by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili made earlier in September served as a catalyst for an outpouring of popular discontent. A former ally of Saakashvili, Okruashvili accused the president of being engaged in criminal activity, clannish rule and corruption. However, the actual causes of mass public dissatisfaction lie elsewhere.

Saakashvili exhibited the first signs that he was inclined to authoritarianism soon after the Rose Revolution.  In February, Parliament adopted constitutional amendments that restricted its authority and gave the president unrestrained powers. Among other things, the measure strengthened law enforcement agencies, which have become accountable only to the President.

Shortly afterwards, the ruling National Movement Party adopted a series of legislative changes that facilitated the establishment of a dominant party system.  In November, rules on the composition of Central Election Commission (CEC) were changed, giving only the ruling majority the power to appoint CEC members.  In July 2005, despite protest from election monitoring groups and the opposition, the majority in Parliament adopted a new "winner-takes-all" voting system, thus eliminating the possibility of representation for diverse political views in local governments. Contrary to the judgment of the Constitutional Court, newly adopted local government legislation also established indirect election by local councils and deprived municipalities of profit tax, the most important source of income.

Finally, on December 27, 2006 Parliament rushed through another set of changes to the constitution, extending its own term of office from spring 2008 to fall of the same year. The change was aimed at simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections. Saakashvili justified the change by citing the need to maintain political unity amongst the branches of government.

During his November 1 speech in Tbilisi, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried underscored the major goal that can lead Georgia to NATO membership: "Advancing democratic and judicial reforms especially by ensuring judicial proceedings remain free from political influence." So far, the opposite has been happening.

As Freedom House's 2007 Nations in Transit report on Georgia notes, "there are widespread allegations that political leadership exerts hidden pressure on judges who, at least in politically sensitive cases, hardly dare to disappoint the demands of the prosecution." Carrots and sticks have been used to subordinate the judiciary to political pressure. For example, the parliamentary majority dismissed five "Rebel Judges" of the Supreme Court, who were outspoken about the threats they have received from the executive branch. Encouraging loyalty in newly appointed judges, on June 5, 2007 the president ordered the sale of land to appellate and Supreme Court judges at prices a hundred times cheaper than their market value. A more recent clampdown has been the closure of trials to broadcast media.

In addition to concentrating power in the president's office, the ruling political elite have to gradually ignored the public sentiment. The government failed to involve the larger community in discussion on major political decisions. As stressed correctly by the Council of Europe Monitoring Group in 2005, the circle of people engaged in decision-making narrowed to only a few. Outside voices such as independent experts and opinion-makers have been ignored and government critics scorned and marginalized. Ongoing institutional reform has failed to establish viable channels of communication between public agencies and their beneficiaries.